If you paid any attention to the news lately you might have come across an obscure conflict which quickly became a hot-button topic worldwide: The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This conflict, however, dates back to the cold war. Between 1988 and 1994, the two nations fought a fierce war for control over the Karabakh region: a territory which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but inhabited and held by a separatist Armenian majority. This war resulted in a lot of casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. Armenian forces were left in control over most of the disputed land. Although the war ended with a ceasefire agreement in 1994, occasional violence continued to plague the region and in late September 2020, Karabakh saw the biggest escalation of violence since the end of the war. Both sides accuse each other of violating the ceasefire agreement. The situation is only further complicated by the involvement of several regional powers, primarily Turkey, Russia and Iran.
WHEN AND WHY DID THE NAGORNO-KARABAKH WAR START?
The origin of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be traced back to 1918. Before 1918, Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with other countries in the Caucuses region, were a part of the Russian empire. Near the end of world war one, however, the Russian monarchy collapsed and the empire became engulfed in a bloody civil war. As a result, a lot of countries in the Caucuses and the surrounding regions were declared independent. Among them were Armenia and Azerbaijan. But there was a problem for these new nations namely that the sultan Caucasus was very ethnically diverse. Many regions had large minority communities or had no ethnic majority at all which made determining national borders a difficult and highly divisive issue. Armenia was mostly inhabited by orthodox Armenians, and Azerbaijan had a Shia-Muslim Majority. These religious differences often caused violence among the two nations. Karabakh, at the same time, was an ethnically diverse region, which in 1918 was inhabited by an Armenian majority concentrated in the highlands but also by significant Azerbaijani minority, particularly in the lowlands. This region, as a result, became severely contested between the two nations and in 1920, a war would break out. The Armenians would hold the region until 1921 when outside intervention arrived in the form of the Soviets, who were the victors of the recently concluded Russian civil war and sought to reclaim the lost territories of the former Russian empire. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, knowing the military supremacy of the newly formed Soviet Union, decided to join the Soviet Union without any objection.
The Soviets were now responsible for solving the issues involving disputed regions in the Caucuses, including Karabakh. Karabakh was shifted from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction multiple times. Finally, Joseph Stalin to hand this over to Azerbaijan. However, a semi-autonomous region within Karabakh was also created, called Nagorno-Karabakh as a sort of compromise between the Armenians and other Azerbaijanis. The two countries, however, were not satisfied with such a compromise. Any question related to Karabakh would continue to be subject of debate in the internal politics of the Soviet Union in the following decades. Armenian politicians had requested the central government in Moscow multiple times to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Their attempts went in vain every single time. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan began to encourage the Azerbaijani population to settle in Nagorno-Karabakh to solidify control over the semi-autonomous region. This policy was relatively successful as the Azerbaijani population within the autonomous zone rose from a mere six per cent in 1923 to about 23 per cent in 1989. Additionally, the Azerbaijani population in the Karabakh lowlands also increased significantly throughout soviet times.
The situation in the region remained largely peaceful until the Soviet Union began to collapse during Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration. Ethnic violence in the region fled up once more and in 1988, the regional parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh officially petitioned Moscow to be transferred to Armenian jurisdiction after being denied many times. More violence ensued in 1991 both Armenian and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union and also began to wage a bloody full-scale war against one another for control of the region. During this war, Armenia was supported by the Russian Federation, formed after the Soviet Union fell apart, while Azerbaijan obtained help from Turkey and Iran because of its high Shia-Muslim population. The war ended in 1994 with a ceasefire agreement and Armenia emerged as a de facto victor of this confrontation. Armenian forces assumed control over this region, including the lowlands occupied by the Azerbaijani minority. This led to a drastic change in the ethnic composition of the entire Karabakh region considerably as Azerbaijani communities were displaced from Armenian Karabakh while Armenian minorities were displaced from Azerbaijan. Over the next few years, a lot of people from the middle-eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon started settling in Karabakh, strengthening the ethnic Armenian majority.
Shortly after the war, the Armenian majority in the Karabakh region declared themselves independent and formed the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally unrecognized territory. Later, this region was renamed as the Republic of Artsakh by the Armenians. Now, a slow and unsuccessful peace process began in 2007, called the Madrid principles. These principles were proposed by an international organization called the OSCE Minsk group to solve this issue peacefully. This plan sought to solve the conflict by returning certain parts of the occupied territories to Azerbaijan, allowing Armenia to retain a temporary corridor of Nagorno-Karabakh and by creating a special transitional status for this region, which should only be terminated after there has been a legally binding settlement, for example, through an international court. At the same time, the plan allowed refugees from both nations to return to the region and also place it under the protection of an international peacekeeping force. Both countries were not affirmative of this plan. Armenia was in a better position than it would have been with the Madrid plan and Azerbaijan was not satisfied with the number of concessions it would receive throughout the 2000s. The conflict resolution process was going nowhere, while the balance of power between the two nations would shift as Azerbaijan became significantly wealthier due to its natural gas resources. Short outbursts of violence frequently erupted between the two nations over this region. However, those clashes never really changed anything about the situation the Karabakh. The clashes of 2020 are the latest and most violent in a series of skirmishes and Azerbaijani forces did manage to make gains in the south, particularly where Azerbaijanis used to live before 1994.
RECENT ESCALATIONS IN THE REGION
After the ceasefire violation in late September 2020, both countries started blaming each other for the act, which eventually led to war. This war would probably go down as the most violent war in the history of territorial disputes. Rocket attacks, trench warfare and heavy artillery were a part of this war. Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey and Israel (which is rather strange), employed drones to destroy strategic areas of Armenia in the Karabakh region. Armenia, however, managed to bring down a few drones, but the damage caused by these drones was enormous.
Russia on the other hand acted as a strategic ally to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not only did Russia supply weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also helped foster peace between the two nations.
As the war progressed, Azerbaijan claimed to have taken control of most important cities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, most notably, the city of Shusha. These claims were denied by the Armenians and the war continued. After 6 weeks of vigorous fighting, the war came to an end after the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a ceasefire with Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia. Both countries agreed to stop military operations in the region and Azerbaijan was given total control of the areas that it had occupied during the course of the war. Russia also deployed troops in the region to keep the tensions between the two countries in check.
Things, however, didn’t go well for the Armenian Prime Minister. He was heavily criticized by his fellow countrymen for giving away a region that was so important to the country. He was also deemed as a traitor and the people of Armenia demanded his immediate removal from the office. Nikol Pashniyan, on the other hand, doesn’t intend to hold on to his seat and has also called for early elections to decide his fate.
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this disputed region could go down as one of the most fiercest wars in the history of territorial disputes. Though the amount of damage caused in the civilian areas was considerably less, the loss of innocent lives heavily affected the people living in the region. Over 5000 soldiers died in this conflict, who will always be remembered by their dearest. Let’s hope that other countries take this as an example and sort things out peacefully.